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on 20 February 2009
Oof. I bought this because Paul Krugman - of all people - personally recommended it, and my first reaction was that Paul should be a bit more careful with his endorsements. Charlie Stross does neither psychology like Henry James, nor prose like Elmore Leonard. His prose is so unlike Elmore Lenonard's, in fact, that the first person his heroine, Miriam, brought to mind was Marilee - she of the beauty that defied description - from the Bulwer-Lytton competition.

What really interests Stross is developmental socioeconomics (well, that and ditzy, but razor-sharp, machine-pistol wielding babes in renaissance gowns), and as this side of the story starts to build momentum, helped along by the economics tutorials that punctuate the fire-fights, I actually found myself, having enduring the details of Miriam's hairstyling problems and the occasional bad sex scene, being entertained. Enough so that I have just bought volume 2.

Note to the author - the Rothschild family do not produce Champagne, at least not under the Rothschild name.
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on 18 March 2005
Stross' latest work takes a bit of a step from his usual hi-SF prose, and moves over to the fantasy genre. Stross has taken a dollop of Zelanzy and a pinch of Beam Piper, to create a fantasy world that's not exactly like anything you'll have ever read before.
The protagonist - a thirty something reporter - finds that she can walk between worlds; our modern world of the 2000's and another, nearly identical world, that is still ruled by a feudal system and is technologically stunted. Soon she finds that she is the classical long lost family member, of a family that is anything but loving and more reminiscent of a world domineering mafia.
Intregue, plots, murder and romance follow - all with an underlying mystery that begs to be solved... Can Miriam change the way this new world works, can she survive the murderous intent of the other Families, her supposed close relatives (including possibly her newly discovered grandmother) and a mysterious third faction? And finally, will she be able to continue her secret affair in public, without fear of recrimintation!?
Not to move too far away from what we've come to expect from Stross, he still shows his panache for political thought and find that earth's alternate world is a boiling pot of politcs. Its also refreshing to see that the fuedal system is described the way it would really be, and not some fairytale of lords and ladies. Nor should you expect tales of heroic knights on horseback.
The only knights you'll meet in this fantasy setting have glocks and Sub-machine guns.
The story itself is part of a larger series, and if the book itself feels a little stunted and sudden - it is. Originally this and book two were meant to be a single volume, so the ending is a cliffhanger even though it feels a little wrong.
The overall series looks to be a really exciting departure from your standard fantasy faire, and book two far more of an in depth tale now that book one has the intro's and explanations out of the way.
If you're looking for something a bit different in the fantasy isle, or are already a fan of Stross' in depth writing, then this is definaly one for the wish list.
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on 11 January 2008
When a book jacket states that there's world travel involved and it's dedicated to (amongst others) Roger Zelazny, you kinda know what's coming. And there are indeed strong traces of a "Princes of Amber" heritage in this book, but Stross adds to it a greater understanding of the systems which drive our modern world such as trade and technology. Truth be told, those things were always there even with trade in the 16th century, it is merely that they are much better understood today. The end result is an interesting slant on the traditional world-travelling-orphan-finds-family tale which makes a good attempt at modernising the genre by accounting for technology and the economics of world-walking.

Unfortunately, while Stross gains on systems and sense, he loses on the sense of poetry and the lyrical world. Fantasy is a very different beast from sci-fi in that the poetic appeal of the setting counts for a great deal, especially in these no-holds-barred adventures in the mold of Vance and Zelazny, and it's there that the book falls short. It all feels just a bit too modern and clear-cut, without a real sense of 'here be dragons'. It's still a credible effort though, and as long as you don't expect to find Gene Wolfe-ian or Tolkienite texture and detail you should enjoy it. I have good hope that future volumes will pick up the pace ;)
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on 17 May 2012
This is not a standalone book in any sense. It does not come to a satisfactory conclusion at all. It reads like the synopsis for a TV series that desperately wants to be commissioned for a second series, so leaves everything open and unexplained. Since I have read and enjoyed quite a few of his books, i was disappointed. I like a series of books but don't like being ripped off by book 1 being half a book, or possibly less.
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on 18 December 2012
Not written as well as some of Stross's other works, and actually only half a book spread a little too thin - make sure that you've got The Hidden Family primed and ready to go and you won't feel too cheated.

I actually nearly read this a few times and put it down because the blurb on the back put me off. If instead it had said 'an investigation of how knowledge of startups, VCs and economic development can be applied in alternate histories to give you an edge in business.' I would have been much more interested.

So yes, it's far from Stross's best, but ultimately, there's something very cool about knights in armour with machine guns and the entertainment for a medieval feast being shown on a Sony flat screen. It's well worth a read as long as your expectation level is right.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 November 2013
This was okay but did not really hold my attention and was clearly setting up for a series. The plot is a straightforward blend of Conquistador by Stirling and The Man Behind the Mask by Christine Rimmer. Stirling did it better.
I did not find the journalist's behaviour very convincing at the start as few journalists would have taken a researcher's work and rushed off to an editor over the head of her own editor, without doing her own digging and writing and confirmation. This may have coloured my attitude.

The female protagonist is given an amulet which enables her to travel to an alternative, medieval version of Earth. Getting there is always the problem so instead of a 'door' we have an innate skill possessed by a bloodline of 'world-walkers'. Having accepted that we find that these people are a wealthy clan ruling over part of the alternate Earth. Their rule is financed by bringing suitcases of contraband between worlds but for no reason I can see, they are not using this wealth to give themselves indoor plumbing or heating. Come on, wouldn't anyone bring back electricity and piped water! Stross's character compares the selfish overlords to the Saudi royal family. An outsider (lost heir) with their powers is a potential threat and some people want to marry off this woman to control her while others decide she is better off dead. The end of the story did pick up with action rather than slow rules and customs, but obviously was going to leave us hanging. The story might improve in the second book now that the basics have been established.

Stross repeatedly uses two appalling grammatical errors which are creeping into American books.
Robotic punctuation, as in "You. Shot. A." Nobody speaks that way and it just serves to draw the reader out of the story and onto the printed page. Stop doing it, unless you're writing about a Terminator.
Bad colon usage. "...a suit of armour that looked strangely wrong to Miriam's untrained eye: The plates and joints not quite angled like anything she'd seen in a museum back home."
Dividing a sentence requires a verb in the second part. As in, 'the plates and joints were not angled'. Unless the word after the colon is a proper noun, like John, no capital letter is used, because it is still the same sentence.
There is a lesson to be learned: don't use colons unless you know how.
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VINE VOICEon 6 September 2008
Every time I read a new Charles Stross book, I find a novel that quickly becomes a favourite, and always for different reasons each time. In the last year, I have read several of his science-fiction novels: Halting State, The Jennifer Morgue, The Atrocity Archives and Glasshouse, and now with The Family Trade I have another book I like, the third book Stross wrote, and this time, it's a fantasy novel. Of sorts. Sorts of the strangest sorts.

Miriam Beckstein is/was a business journalist. She's also the recent new owner of a strange locket that takes her to a strange land filled with strange people who speak something similar to German, and are utterly terrified of her. It's clearly a medieval settlement of sorts, which unnerves Miriam a little: she's an American and very firmly a 21st century one. A knight on horseback is clearly required at this stage of the damsel's distress ... only, the one that has appeared carries a machine gun, and is running down peasants. She flees. Unfortunately for her, she's been noticed and is seized from her home by a special operations team more advanced than anything the United States government can command, who take her back to the strange place. Apparently, she's a long-lost member of a family of world-walking merchants so powerful that the king marries his children into their line to increase his position. What's more, not everyone is very happy that Miriam has turned up and messed up some carefully laid plans ... and those nobles, sticklers for formality and court dress, aren't afraid to use the high-powered automatic weapons that they've borrowed from her world...

Stross has a talent for combining the well-thought out and realistic, such as a business journalist who knows her trade well, with the ridiculous: knights on horseback, with M-16 machine guns, riding down peasants. A feuding family, run like a business, in another dimension, who are also the main illegal drugs importers for the United States, who, having dressed in ridiculously formal attire (the Elizabethans/Victorians had it easy!) relax after dinner by having a television brought in, and episodes of Dallas played! And it works. It works really, really well.

The Family Trade is absent a lot of the "harder" elements of Stross' science-fiction, while retaining that attention to detail and intellectualness, mixed in with traditional fantasy subjects: feuding nobles, romance, politics, a little magic ... inter-dimensional trade and economics ... along with the usual Stross hallmarks of good characterisations, humour, and quick-paced in-depth plotting. Miriam is a realistic, funny and engaging character, and is one of the best female characters Stross has yet created.

Romance often feels a bit forced in fantasy and science-fiction, and sadly that's the case with The Family Trade. I think it might have had a touch more verisimilitude if Stross had stayed consistent, but instead we see Miriam deciding that her cousin (many times removed, and besides, it's a Baroque-style medieval noble family: inbreeding happens, and is, in fact, necessary for the "world walker" talent to stay within the family) is rather attractive, and then next minute, they are sleeping together. Fine. Then, having spent roughly 48 hours together, they are in love, and talking about their future away from the Family. Not long after that, Miriam decides that she can't entirely trust him, and had better stay her distance for a while. It's a fairly short book, detailing events that last about 14 days, so this choppiness felt a little out of character for Miriam -- a character whom normally it was very easy to associate with.

Minor flaws aside though, I was genuinely impressed with Stross' attitude towards this fantasy, and while it wasn't quite as filled with laughs as others of his books, and does perhaps show a little of Stross' youth at the time of writing, The Family Trade was extremely entertaining, with a wonderful premise that isn't let down by the quality of the prose. The next in the series is The Hidden Family.
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on 29 October 2010
I like this, read it first as a library book, and have now bought it for a second read. That's despite its obvious flaws.

The first couple of chapters are pretty uninspiring, but any author writing a story that takes place in parallel worlds has a problem. They need to establish their characters in this world, usually before the interesting stuff starts happening. So OK, we'll forgive that. The problem with the series is that Stross has gone all out for a fast pace, and the books suffer as a result. The series has been messed about by the publisher, and what was planned as a trilogy ended up split down into six slim paperbacks. Has material been edited out in the process?

So, the book opens with Miriam, the main character, and her friend Paulie uncovering some financial shenanigans. But they're never explained in any more than the most general terms. More seriously, towards the end, Miriam wants to find a way of bootstrapping the Gruinmarkt into a more advanced form of economy, without the flaws of mercantilism. As most readers won't be economists, a paragraph or two explaining mercantilism and its failings is called for, and could easily have been worked in. It's not there. that's the problem with fast-paced novels, they lack depth.

However, the series is a good one, and the last volume is due out next year. I can see myself coming back to it again.
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on 5 February 2006
Lured by Mr Stross's wonderful, eccentric later works of inspired 'hard' science fiction, I thought I'd have a go at this. Not as truely bad as some of the reviews I read insist - let's be kind and say a journeyman piece. Anne McCaffrey does it better, but some nice ideas... and hey - I'm buying book 2!
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on 3 May 2008
I shouldn't expect an author to keep on churning out the same type of book over and over again - but having read Atrocity Archive, Jennifer Morgue and Halting State in quick succession, and being avid for more, I was desperately disappointed to come across what reads like a Jackie Collins airport novel, written by someone who's just finished a housewives' creative writing course. The first person narrative of some of his other novels feels a lot more direct and interesting than the rather mechanical progression through scene setting and character development that you get in the first few pages of Family Trade. I should also add that the feisty American who just happens to be able to move to different worlds has been done before, repeatedly.
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